It wasn't supposed to be easy. It sure looked like it would be early on though. Butler opened the floodgates from the tip, jumping out to a 21-2 lead 6 minutes into the game. Then suddenly it wasn't so easy. Butler scored only 6 points over the next 10 minutes and remarkably saw their 19 point lead turn into a 2 point deficit in the blink of an eye. When CJ Jones hit a 3 pointer to cap a 16-0 Arkansas run the Bulldogs appeared to be in big time trouble.
But every time Arkansas brought a run the Bulldogs responded. Butler went on a 9-2 run to close the half and regain the lead and then continued that strong play to start the 2nd half to once again build a double digit lead. The closest Arkansas came after that was 53-47 midway through the second half. Arkansas appeared to be threatening even further when they jumped out to a 2-on-1 fastbreak, but freshman Aaron Thompason made the play of the game. He stepped into the passing lane to pick up one of his three steals on the evening, led the fast break, and then picked up one of his seven assists to Kelan Martin for a dagger 3 to silence the Arkansas run. The Razorbacks never threatened after that as Butler hung on for a 79-62 victory in Detroit.
"It was all about response, and really proud of our seniors for stepping up, owning our huddles and making plays when we needed them," LaVall Jordan said postgame. "So we just talked about survive and advance. That's the nature of March. We knew it was going to be a 40-minute game.We got up big early. And we knew they had a run in them and we knew we had to hold on and get it back. But guys had a really good demeanor about them and we made good decisions late when it mattered."
The Bulldogs were led in scoring once again by Kelan Martin. His 27 points on 9-16 shooting gives him 2018 points for his Butler career. He becomes only the 3rd member of Butler's 2,000 point club and needs only 2 more points to pass Darrin Fitzgerald for 2nd on Butler's scoring list. Chad Tucker's remarkable 2,321 points remains safe for the immediate future. Kamar Baldwin (could he be the next to take a shot at Tucker's record?) was outstanding as well, scoring 24 points, grabbing 9 rebounds, and dishing out 5 assists.
Coach Jordan praised Kelan Martin and fellow senior Tyler Wideman after the game. "Our seniors weren't satisfied with just getting here and getting to the tournament. Obviously we had to earn that. But they got bigger goals in mind. And so that's been the case the past two decades. And I think that you can feel that. You can see it. I think we worked with that mindset every day. And these guys have done a heck of a job this season."
A major concern coming into the game was 3 point shooting. Arkansas shot 40.1% from distance on the season while Butler really struggled to defend the arc. Butler has been sporadic shooting the ball from 3 this season, with most of those struggles coming on the road. The numbers were certainly lopsided in this one, but it was the Bulldogs dominating the 3 point line. Butler shot 11-26 (42%) while Arkansas shot only 4-18 (22%) from deep. I said in the game preview it sometimes just comes down to making shots. Butler did that. Arkansas didn't.
Another key to the game coming in was paint play. Arkansas may have featured the future NBA center, but the matchup favored the Bulldogs down low. Butler dominated the offensive glass, securing 11 offensive rebounds compared to only 5 for Arkansas. The Bulldogs also outscored the Razorbacks 34-22 in the post despite the presence of Gafford down low. Butler did get beat handily in the turnover battle (14 vs 7) and at the free throw line, shooting 6 fewer free throws than Arkansas made (10-12 vs 18-23), but it wasn't enough to outweigh Butler's domination in almost every other aspect of the game.
Butler will advance to play Purdue with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line. That matchup didn't fare so well for the Bulldogs earlier this season. The Boilermakers jumped all over Butler early and held on for an 82-67 victory. Purdue blew out Cal St Fullerton in the opening round, but it came at a cost. Senior star Isaac Haas was lost for the season with an elbow fracture. This may be a 10-2 matchup on Sunday, but that greatly overstates the differential between these two team. It's going to be a dog fight.